Mr. Maverick Narkom, Superintendent of Scotland Yard, sat before the litter of papers upon his desk. His brow was puckered, his fat face red with anxiety, and there was about him the air of one who has reached the end of his tether.
He faced the man opposite, and fairly ground his teeth upon his lower lip.
"Dash it, Cleek!" he said for the thirty-third time, "I don't know what to make of it, I don't, indeed! The thing's at a deadlock. Hammond reports to me this morning that another bank in Hendon a little one-horse affair has been broken into. That makes the third this week, and as usual every piece of gold is gone. Not a bank note touched, not a bond even fingered. And the thief, or thieves, made as clean a get-away as you ever laid your eyes on! I tell you, man, it's enough to send an average person daft! The whole of Scotland Yard's been on the thing, and we haven't traced 'em yet! What do you make of it, old chap?"
"As pretty a kettle of fish as I ever came across," responded Cleek, with an enigmatic smile. "And I can't help having a sneaking admiration for the person who's engineering the whole thing. How he must laugh at the state of the old Yard, with never a clue to settle down upon, never a thread to pick up and unravel! All of which is unbusinesslike of me, I've no doubt. But, cheer up, man, I've a piece of news which ought to help matters on a bit. Just came from the War Office, you know."
Mr. Narkom mopped his forehead eagerly. The action was one which Cleek knew showed that every nerve was tense.
"Well, out with it, old chap! Anything to cast some light on the inexplicable thing. What did you learn at the War Office?"
"A good many things after I had unravelled several hundred yards of red tape to get at 'em," said Cleek, still smiling. "Chief among them was this: Much English gold has been discovered in Belgium, Mr. Narkom, in connection with several big electrical firms engaged upon work out there. The Secret Service wired over that fact, and I got it first hand. Now it strikes me there must be some connection between the two things. These bank robberies point in one direction, and that is, that the gold is not for use in this country. Now let's hear the full account of this latest outrage. I'm all ears, as the donkey said to the ostrich. Fire away."
Mr. Narkom "fired away" forthwith. He was a bland, round little man, rather too fat for one's conceptions of what a policeman ought to be, yet with that lightness of foot that so many stout people seem to possess.
Cleek presented a keen contrast to him. His broad-shouldered, well-groomed person would have adorned any company. His head was well-set upon his neck, and his features at this moment were small and inclined to be aquiline. He had closely set ears that lay well back against his head, and his hands were slim and exceedingly well-kept. Of his age well that, like himself, was an enigma. Today he might have been anything between thirty-five and forty, tomorrow probably he would be looking nineteen. That was part of the peculiar birthright of the man, that and a mobility of feature which enabled him to alter his face completely in the passing of a second, a gift which at least one notorious criminal of history also possessed.
He sat now, playing with the silver-topped cane between his knees, his head slightly to one side, his whole manner one of polite and tolerant interest. But Mr. Narkom knew that this same manner marked an intensity of concentration which was positively unique. Without more ado he plunged into the details of his story.
"It happened in this wise, Cleek," he said, tapping his fountain-pen against his blotter until little spouts of ink fell out like jet beads. "This is at least the ninth case of the kind we've had reported to us within the space of the last fortnight. The first robbery was at a tiny branch bank in Purley, and the bag amounted to a matter of a couple of hundred or so sovereigns; the second was at Peckham on the outskirts, you understand; the third at Harrow; the fourth somewhere near Forest Hill, and the fifth in Croydon. Other places on the South East side of London have come in for their share, too, as for instance Anerley and Sutton. This last affair took place at Hendon, during the evening of Saturday last the sixteenth, wasn't it? No one observed anything untoward in the least, that is except one witness who relates how he saw a motor car standing outside the bank's premises at half past nine at night. He gave no thought to this, as he probably imagined, if he thought of the coincidence at all, that the manager had called there for something he had forgotten in his office."
"And where, then, does the manager live, if not over the bank itself?" put in Cleek at this juncture.
"With his wife and family, in a house some distance away. A couple of old bank people a porter and his wife who are both thoroughly trustworthy in every way, so Mr. Barker tells me act as caretakers. But they positively assert that they heard no one in the place that night, and no untoward happening occurred to their knowledge."
"And yet the bank was broken into, and the gold taken," supplemented Cleek quietly. "And what then, Mr. Narkom? How was the deed done?"
"Oh, the usual methods. The skeleton keys of a master crook obviously opened the door to the premises themselves, and soup was used to crack the safe. Everything was left perfectly neat and tidy and only the bags of gold amounting to seven hundred and fifty pounds were gone. And not a trace of a clue to give one a notion of who did the confounded thing, or where they came from!"
"Hmm. Any finger-prints?"
Mr. Narkom shook his head.
"None. The thief or thieves used rubber gloves to handle the thing. And that was the only leg given us to stand upon, so to speak. For rubber gloves, when they are new, particularly, possess a very strong smell, and this still clung to the door-knob of the safe, and to several objects near it. That was how we deduced the rubber-glove theory of no finger-prints at all, Cleek."
"And a very worthy deduction too, my friend," responded that gentleman, with something of tolerance in his smile. "And so you have absolutely nothing to go by. Poor Mr. Narkom! The path of Law and Justice is by no means an easy one to tread, is it? Of course you can count upon me to help you in every way. That goes without saying. But I can't help thinking that this news from the War Office with regard to English gold in Belgium has something to do with these bank robberies, my friend. The two things seem to hang together in my mind, and a dollar to a ducat that in the long run they identify themselves thus.... Hello! Who's that?" as a tap sounded at the door. "I'll be off if you're expecting visitors. I want to look into this thing a little closer. Some time or other the thieves are bound to leave a clue behind. Success breeds carelessness, you know, and if they think that Scotland Yard is giving the business up as a bad job, they won't be so deuced particular as to clearing up afterward. We'll unravel the thing between us, never fear."
"I wish I could think so, old chap!" said Mr. Narkom, a trifle gloomily, as he called "Come in!" The door opened to admit Petrie, very straight and business-like. "But you're no end of a help. It does me good just to see you. What is it, Petrie?"
"A gentleman to see you, sir," responded the constable in crisp tones. "A gentleman by name of Merriton, Sir Nigel Merriton he said his name was. Bit of a toff I should say by the look of 'im. And wants to see you partikler. He mentioned Mr. Cleek's name, sir, but I told 'im he wasn't in at the moment. Shall I show him up?"
"Quite right, Petrie," laughed Cleek, in recognition of this act of one of the Yard's subordinates; for everyone was to do everything in his power to shield Cleek's identity. "I'll stay if you don't mind, Mr. Narkom. I happen to know something of this Merriton. A fine upstanding young man, who, once upon a time was very great friends with Miss Lorne. That was in the old Hawksley days. Chap's lately come into his inheritance, I believe. Uncle disappeared some five or six years ago and legal time being up, young Merriton has come over to claim his own. The thing made a newspaper story for a week when it happened, but they never found any trace of the old man. And now the young one is over here, bearing the title, and I suppose living as master of the Towers spooklike spot that it is! Needn't say who I am, old chap, until I hear a bit. I'll just shift over there by the window and read the news, if you don't mind."
"Right you are." Mr. Narkom struggled into his coat, which he generally disposed of during private office hours. Then he gave the order for the gentleman to be shown in and Petrie disappeared forthwith.
But during the time which intervened before Merriton's arrival, Cleek did a little "altering" in face and general get-up, and when he did appear certainly no one would have recognized the aristocratic looking individual of a moment or two before, in an ordinary-appearing, stoop-shouldered, rather racy-looking tout.
"Ready," said Cleek at last, and Mr. Narkom touched the bell upon his table. Immediately the door opened and Petrie appeared followed closely by young Sir Nigel Merriton, whose clean-cut face was grim and whose mouth was set forbiddingly.
And in this fashion was Cleek introduced to the chief character of a case which was to prove one of the strangest of his whole career. There was nothing about Sir Nigel, a well-dressed man about town, to indicate that he was to be the centre of an extraordinary drama, yet such was to be the case.
He was obviously perturbed, but those who sought Mr. Narkom's counsel were frequently agitated; for no one can be even remotely connected with crime in one form or another without showing excitement to a greater or lesser degree. And so his manner by no means set Sir Nigel apart from many another visitor to the Superintendent's sanctum.
Mr. Narkom's cordial nod brought from the young man a demand to see "Mr. Cleek," of whom he had heard such wonderful tales. Mr. Narkom, with one eye on that very gentleman's back, announced gravely that Cleek was absent on a government case, and asked what he could do. He waved a hand in Cleek's direction and said that here was one of his men who would doubtless be able to help Sir Nigel in any difficulty he might happen to be in at the moment.
Now, as Sir Nigel's story was a long one, and as the young man was too agitated to tell it altogether coherently, we will go back for a certain space of time, and tell the very remarkable story, the details of which were told to Mr. Narkom and his nameless associate in the Superintendent's office, and which was to involve Cleek of Scotland Yard in a case which was later to receive the title of the Riddle of the Frozen Flame.
Much that he told them of his family history was already known to Cleek, whose uncanny knowledge of men and affairs was a by-word, but as that part of the story itself was not without romance, it must be told too, and to do so takes the reader back to a few months before his present visit to the precincts of the Law, when Sir Nigel Merriton returned to England after twelve years of army life in India. A few days he had spent in London, renewing acquaintances, revisiting places he knew to find them wonderfully little changed and then had journeyed to Merriton Towers, the place which was to be his, due to the extraordinary disappearance of his uncle a disappearance which was yet to be explained.
Ill luck had often seemed to dog the footsteps of his house and even his journey home was not without a mishap; nothing serious, as things turned out, but still something that might have been vastly so. His train was in a wreck, rather a nasty one, but Nigel himself had come out unscathed, and much to be congratulated, he thought, since through that wreck he has become acquainted with what he firmly believed to be the most beautiful girl in the world. Better yet, he had learned that she was a neighbour of his at Merriton Towers. That fact helped him through what he felt was going to be somewhat of an ordeal his entrance into the gloomy and ghost ridden old house of his inheritance.
THE FROZEN FLAMES
Merriton Towers had been called the loneliest spot in England by many of the tourists who chanced to visit the Fen district, and it was no misnomer. Nigel, having seen it some thirteen years before, found that his memory had dimmed the true vision of the place considerably; that where he had builded romance, romance was not. Where he had softened harsh outlines, and peopled dark corridors with his own fancies, those same outlines had taken on a grimness that he could hardly believe possible, and the long, dark corridors of his mind's vision were longer and darker and lonelier than he had ever imagined any spot could be.
It was a handsome place, no doubt, in its gaunt, gray, prisonlike way. And, too, it had a moat and a miniature portcullis that rather tickled his boyish fancy. The furnishings, however, had an appalling grimness that took the very heart out of one. Chairs which seemed to have grown in their places for centuries crowded the corners of hallway and stairs like gigantic nightmares of their original prototypes. Monstrous curtains of red brocade, grown purple with the years, seemed to hang from every window and door crowding out the light and air. The carpets were thick and dark and had lost all sign of pattern in the dull gloom of the centuries.
It was, in fact, a house that would create ghosts. The atmosphere was alive with that strange sensation of disembodied spirits which some very old houses seem to possess. Narrow, slit-like windows in perfect keeping with the architecture and the needs of the period in which it was built if not with modern ideas of hygiene and health kept the rooms dark and musty. When Nigel first entered the place through the great front door thrown open by the solemn-faced butler, who he learned had been kept on from his uncle's time, he felt as though he were entering his own tomb. When the door shut he shuddered as the light and sunshine vanished.
The first night he hardly slept a wink. His bed was a huge four-poster, girt about with plush hangings like over-ripe plums, that shut him in as though he were in some monstrous Victorian trinket box. A post creaked at every turn he made in its downy softnesses, and being used to the light, camp like furniture of an Indian bungalow he got up, took an eiderdown with him, and spent the rest of the hours upon a sofa drawn up beside an open window.
"That people could live in such places!" he told himself, over and over again. "No wonder my poor old uncle disappeared! Any self-respecting Christian would. There'll be some slight alterations made in Merriton Towers before I'm many days older, you can bet your life on that. Old great-grandmother four-poster takes her congé to-morrow morning. If I must live here I'll sleep anyhow."
He settled himself back against the hard, horsehair sofa, and pulled up the blind. The room was instantly filled with gray and lavender shadows, while without the Fens stretched out in unbroken lines as though all the rest of the world were made up of nothing else. Lonely? Merriton had known the loneliness of Indian nights, far away from any signs of civilization: the loneliness of the jungle when the air was so still that the least sound was like the dropping of a bomb; the strange mystical loneliness which comes to the only white man in a town of natives. But all these were as nothing as compared to this. He could imagine a chap committing suicide living in such a house. Sir Joseph Merriton had disappeared five years before and no wonder!
Merriton lay with his eyes upon the window, smoking a cigarette, and surveyed the outlook before him with despairing eyes. What a future for a chap in his early thirties to face! Not a sign of habitation anywhere, not a vestige of it, save at the far edge of the Fens where a clump of trees and thick shrubs told him that behind lay Withersby Hall. This, intuition told him, was the home of Antoinette Brellier, the girl of the train, of the wreck, and now of his dreams. Then his thoughts turned to her. Gad! to bring a frail, delicate little butterfly to a place like this was like trying to imprison a ray of sunshine in a leaden box!...
His eyes, rivetted upon where the clump of trees stood out against the semi-darkness of the approaching dawn, saw of a sudden a light prick out like a tiny flame, low down upon the very edge of the Fens. One light, two, three, and then a very host of them flashed out, as though some unseen hand had torn the heavens down and strewn their jewels broadcast over the marshes. Instinctively he got to his feet. What on earth ? But even as his lips formed the unspoken exclamation came yet another light to join the others dancing and twinkling and flickering out there across the gloomy marshlands.
What the dickens was it, anyhow? A sort of unearthly fireworks display, or some new explosive experiment? The dancing flames got into his eyes like bits of lighted thistledown blown here, there, and everywhere.
Merriton got to his feet and threw open another window bottom with a good deal of effort, for the sashes were old and stiff. Then, clad only in his silk pyjamas, and with the cigarette charring itself to a tiny column of gray ash in one hand, he leaned far out over the sill and watched those twinkling, dancing, maddening little star-flames, with the eyes of amazed astonishment.
In a moment sleep had gone from his eyelids and he felt thoroughly awake. Dashed if he wouldn't throw on a few clothes and investigate. The thing was so strange, so incredible! He knew, well enough, from Borkins's (the venerable butler) description earlier in the evening, that that part of the marshes was uninhabited. Too low for stars the things were, for they hung on the edges of the marsh grass like tiny lanterns swung there by fairy hands. In such a house, in such a room, with the shadow of that old four-poster winding its long fingers over him, Merriton began to perspire. It was so devilish uncanny! He was a brave enough man in human matters, but somehow these flames out there in the uninhabited stretch of the marshes were surely caused by no human agency. Go and investigate he would, this very minute! He drew in his head and brought the window down with a bang that went sounding through the gaunt, deserted old house.
Hastily he began to dress, and even as he struggled into a pair of tweed trousers came the sound of a soft knock upon his door, and he whipped round as though he had been shot, his nerves all a-jingle from the very atmosphere of the place.
"And who the devil are you?" he snapped out in an angry voice, all the more angry since he was conscious of a slight trembling of the knees. The door swung open a trifle and the pale face of Borkins appeared around it. His eyes were wide with fright, his mouth hung open.
"Sir Nigel, sir. I 'eard a dreadful noise like a pistol shot it was, comin' from this room! Anythink the matter, sir?"
"Nothing, you ass!" broke out Merriton, fretfully, as the butler began to show other parts of his anatomy round the corner of the door. "Come in, or go out, which ever you please. But for the Lord's sake, do one or the other! There's a beastly draught. The noise you heard was that window which possibly hasn't been opened for a century or two, groaning in pain at being forced into action again! Can't sleep in this beastly room haven't closed my eyes yet and when I did get out of that Victorian atrocity over there and take to the sofa by the window, why, the first thing I saw were those flames flickering out across the horizon like signal-fires, or something! I've been watching them for the past twenty minutes and they've got on my nerves. I'm goin' out to investigate."
Borkins gave a little exclamation of alarm and put one trembling hand over his face. Merriton suddenly registered the fact as being a symptom of the state of nerves which Merriton Towers was likely to reduce one. Then Borkins shambled across the room and laid a timid hand upon Merriton's arm.
"For Gawd's sake sir don't!" he murmured in a shaken voice. "Those lights, sir, if you knew the story! If you values your life at any price at all don't go out, sir, and investigate them. Don't! You're a dead man in the morning if you do."
"What's that?" Merriton swung round and looked into the weak, rather watery, blue eyes of his butler. "What the devil do you mean, Borkins, talkin' a lot of rot? What are those flames, anyway? And why in heaven's name shouldn't I go out and investigate 'em if I want to? Who's to stop me?"
"I, your lordship if I ever 'as any influence with 'uman nature!" returned Borkins, vehemently. "The story's common knowledge, Sir Nigel, sir. Them there flames is supernatural. Frozen flames the villagers calls 'em, because they don't seem to give out no 'eat. That part of the Fens in unin'abited and there isn't a soul in the whole village as would venture anywhere near it after dark."
"Because they never comes back, that's why, sir!" said Borkins. "'Tisn't any old wives' tale neither. There's been cases by the score. Only a matter of six months ago one of the boys from the mill, who was somewhat the worse for liquor, said he was a-goin' ter see who it was wot made them flames light up by theirselves, and he never came back. And that same night another flame was added to the number!"
"Whew! Bit of a tall story that, Borkins!" Nevertheless a cold chill crept over Merriton's bones and he gave a forced, mirthless laugh.
"As true as the gospel, Sir Nigel!" said Borkins, solemnly. "That's what always 'appens. Every time any one ventures that way well, they're a soundin' their own death-knell, so to speak, and you kin see the new light appear. But there's never no trace of the person that ventured out across the Fens at evening time. He, or she, a girl tried it once, Lord save 'er! vanishes off the face of the earth as clean as though they'd never been born. Gawd alone knows what it is that lives there, or what them flames may be, but I tells you it's sheer death to attempt to see for yourself, so long as night lasts. And in the morning well, it's gone, and there isn't a thing to be seen for the lookin'!"
"Merciful powers! What a peculiar thing!" Despite his mockery of the supernatural, Merriton could not help but feel a sort of awe steal over him, at the tale as told by Borkins in the eeriest hour of the whole twentyfour that which hangs between darkness and dawn. Should he go or shouldn't he? He was a fool to believe the thing, and yet He certainly didn't want to die yet awhile, with Antoinette Brellier a mere handful of yards away from him, and all the days his own to cultivate her acquaintance in.
"You've fairly made my flesh creep with your beastly story!" he said, in a rather high-pitched voice. "Might have reserved it until morning after my début in this haunt of spirits, Borkins. Consider my nerves. India's made a hash of 'em. Get back to bed, man, and don't worry over my investigations. I swear I won't venture out, to-night at any rate. Perhaps to-morrow I may have summoned up enough courage, but I've no fancy for funerals yet awhile. So you can keep your pleasant little reminiscences for another time, and I'll give you my word of honour that I'll do nothing rash!"
Borkins gave a sigh of relief. He passed his hand over his forehead, and his eyes rather shifty, rather narrow, pale blue eyes which Merriton had instinctively disliked (he couldn't tell why) lightened suddenly.
"Thank Gawd for that, sir!" he said, solemnly. "You've relieved my mind on that score. I've always thought your poor uncle, Sir Joseph Merriton and those flames there might 'ave been the reason for his disappearance, though of course "
"What's that?" Merriton turned round and looked at him, his brow furrowed, the whole personality of the man suddenly awake. "My uncle, Borkins? How long have these er lights been seen hereabouts? I don't remember them as a child."
"Oh, mostly always, I believe, sir; though they ain't been much noticed before the last four years," replied Borkins. "I think, yes, come August next. Four years was the first time my attention was called to 'em."
Merriton's laugh held a note of relief.
"Then you needn't have worried. My uncle has been missing for a little more than five years, and that, therefore, when he did disappear the flames obviously had nothing to do with it!"
Borkins's wrinkled, parchment-like cheeks went a dull, unhealthy red. He opened his mouth to speak and then drew back again. Merriton gave him a keen glance.
"Of course, how foolish of me. As you say, sir, impossible!" he stammered out, bowing backward toward the door. "I'll be getting back to my bed again, and leave you to finish your rest undisturbed. I'm sorry to 'ave troubled you, I'm sure, sir, only I was afraid something 'ad 'appened."
"That's all right. Good-night," returned Merriton curtly, and turned the key in the lock as the door closed. He stood for a moment thinking, his eyes upon the winking, flickering points of light that seemed dimmer in the fast growing light. "Now why did he make that bloomer about dates, I wonder? Uncle's been gone five years and Borkins knew it. He was here at the time, and yet why did he suggest that old wives' tale as a possible solution of the disappearance? Borkins, my lad, there's more behind those watery blue eyes of yours than men may read. Hmm! ... Now I wonder why the deuce he lied to me?"
SUNSHINE AND SHADOW
When Merriton shaved himself next morning he laughed at the reflection that the mirror cast back at him. For he looked for all the world as though he had been up all night and his knee was painful and rather stiff, as though he had strained some ligament in it.
"Beastly place is beginning to make its mark on me already!" he said, as he lathered his chin. "My eyes look as though they had been stuck in with burnt cork, and the devil take my shaky hand! And that railroad business yesterday helps it along. A nice state of affairs for a chap of my age, I must say! Scared as a kid at an old wives' story. Borkins is a fool, and I'm an idiot.... Damn! there's a bit off my chin for a start. I hope to goodness no one takes it into their heads to pay me a visit to-day."
His hopes, however, in this direction were not to be realized, for as the afternoon wore itself slowly away in a ramble round the old place, and through the stables which in their day had been famous the big, harsh-throated doorbell rang, and Merriton, in the very act of telling Borkins that he was officially "not in," happened to catch a glimpse of something light and fluffy through the stained-glass of the door, and suddenly kept his counsel.
A few seconds later Borkins ushered in two visitors. Merriton, prepared by the convenient glass for the appearance of one was nevertheless not unpleased to see the other. For the names that Borkins rolled off his tongue with much relish were those of "Miss Brellier and Mr. Brellier, sir."
His lady of the thrice blessed wreck! His lady of the dainty accent and glorious eyes.
His face glowed suddenly and he crossed the big room in a couple of strides and in the next second was holding Antoinette's hand rather longer than was necessary, and was looking down into the rouguish greeny-gray eyes that had captivated him only yesterday, when for one terrible, glorious moment he had held her in his arms, while the railroad coach dissolved around them.
"Are you fit to be about?" he said, his voice ringing with the very evident pleasure that he felt at this meeting with her, and his eyes wandering to where a strip of pink court plaster upon her forehead showed faintly through the screen of hair that covered it. Then he dropped her hand and turned toward the man who stood a pace or two behind her tiny figure, looking at him with the bluest, youngest eyes he had ever looked into.
"Mr. Brellier, is it not? Very good of you, sir, to come across in this neighbourly fashion. Won't you sit down?"
"Yes," said Antoinette, gaily, "my uncle. I brought him right over by telling him of our adventure."
The man was tall and heavily built, with a wealth of black hair thickly streaked with gray, and a trim, well-kept "imperial" which gave him the foreign air that his name carried out so well. His morning suit was extremely well cut, and his whole bearing that of the well-to-do man about town. Merriton registered all this in his mind's eye, and was secretly very glad of it. They were two thoroughbreds that was easy to see.
And as for Antoinette! Well, he could barely keep his eyes from her. She was lovelier than ever, and clad this afternoon in all the fluffy femininity that every man loves. Anything more intoxicatingly delicious Merriton had never seen outside of his own dreams.
"It was certainly ripping of you both to come," he said nervously, feeling all hands and feet. "Never saw such a lonely spot in all my life, by George, as this house! It fairly gives you the creeps!"
"Indeed?" Brellier laughed in a deep, full-throated voice. "For my part the loneliness is what so much appeals to me. When one has spent a busy life travelling to and fro over the world, m'sieur, one can but appreciate the peaceful backwaters which are so often to be found in this very dear, very delightful England of yours. But that is not the mission upon which I come. I have to thank you, sir, for the great kindness and consideration you displayed to my niece yesterday."
His English was excellent, and he spoke with the clipped, careful accent of the foreigner, which Merriton found fascinating. He had already succumbed to something of the same thing in Antoinette. He was beginning to enjoy himself very much indeed.
"There was no need for thanks none at all.... What is your opinion of the Towers, Miss Brellier?" he asked suddenly, leaning forward toward her, anxious to change the conversation.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"That is hardly a fair question to ask!" she responded, "when I have been in it but a matter of five minutes or more. But everything to me is enchanting! The architecture, the furnishings, the very atmosphere "
"Brrh! If you could have been here last night!" He gave a mock shudder and broke it with a laugh. "Why, a truly haunted house wasn't a patch on it! If this place hasn't got a ghost, well then I'll eat my hat! I could fairly hear 'em, dozens and dozens of them, clinking and clanking all over the place. And if you could see my room! I sleep in a four-poster as big as a suburban villa, and every now and again the furniture gives a comfy little crack or two, like someone practising with a pistol, just to remind me that my great-great-great-grandmother's ghost is sitting in the wardrobe and watching over me with true great-etc.-grandmotherly conscientiousness.... I say, do you ride? There ought to be some rippin' rides round here, if my memory doesn't fail me."
She nodded, and the conversation took a turn that Sir Nigel found more than pleasant, and the time passed most agreeably.
Merriton, only anxious to entertain his guests, suddenly exploded the bomb which shattered that afternoon's enjoyment for all three of them.
"By the way," he remarked, "last night, while I was lying awake I saw a lot of funny flames dancing up and down upon the horizon. Seemed as though they lay in the marshes between your place and mine, Mr. Brellier. Borkins pulled a long story about 'em with all the usual trimmin's. Said they were supernatural and all that. Ever seen 'em yourself? I must say they gave me a bit of a turn. I'm not keen on spirits except in bottle form (which by the way is a rotten bad pun, Miss Brellier,) but in India one gets chockful of that sort of thing, and there never seems to be any rational explanation. It leaves you feeling funny. What's your opinion of 'em? For seen 'em you must have done, as they seem to be the talk of the whole village from what Borkins says."
Antoinette's spoon tinkled in the saucer of the tea-cup she was holding and her face went white. Brellier shifted his eyes. A sort of tension had settled suddenly over the pleasant room.
"I, well, to tell you the truth, I can't explain 'em myself!" Brellier said at last, clearing his throat with signs of genuine nervousness. "They seem to be inexplicable. I have seen them, yes, many, many times. And so has 'Toinette, but the stories afloat about them are rather unpleasant, and like a wise man I have kept myself free of investigation. I do hope you'll do the same, Sir Nigel. One never knows, and although one cannot always believe the silly things which the villagers prattle about, it is as well to be on the safe side. As you say, these things sometimes lack a rational explanation. I should be sorry to think you were likely to run into any unnecessary danger." He bent his head and Merriton could see that his fingers twitched.
"Borkins actually told me stories of people who had disappeared in a mysterious manner and were never found again," he remarked casually.
Brellier shrugged his shoulders. He spread out his hands.
"Among the uneducated what would you? But it is so, even since I myself have been in residence at Withersby Hall something like three and a half years there have been several mysterious disappearances, Sir Nigel, and all directly traceable to a foolhardy desire to investigate these phenomena. For myself, I leave well enough alone. I trust you are going to do likewise?"
His eyes searched Merriton's face anxiously. There was a worried furrow between his brows.
Merriton laughed, and at the sound, 'Toinette, who had sat perfectly still during the discussion of the mystery, gave a little cry of alarm and covered her ears with her hands.
"I beg of you," she broke out excitedly, "please, please do not talk about it! The whole affair frightens me! Uncle will laugh I know, but I am terrified of those little flames, Sir Nigel, more terrified than I can say! If you speak of them any more, I must go really! Please, please don't dream of trying to find out what they are, Sir Nigel! It...it would upset me very much indeed if you attempted so foolish a thing!"
Merriton's first sensation at hearing this was pleasure that he was capable of upsetting her over his own personal welfare. Then the something sinister about the whole story, which seemed to affect every one with whom he came into touch, swept over him. A number of otherwise rational human beings scared out of their wits over some mysterious flames on the edge of the Fens at night time, seemed, in the face of this glorious summer's afternoon, to be little short of ridiculous. He tried to throw the idea off but could not. 'Toinette's pale face kept coming before him; the sudden dropping of her spoon struck an unpleasant chord in his memory. Brellier's attitude merely added fuel to the fire and soon they rose to go, Merriton following them to the door.
"Don't forget, then, Miss Brellier, that you are booked to me for a ride on Thursday," he said, laughingly.
She nodded to him and gave his hand a little squeeze at parting.
"I shall not forget, Sir Nigel. But you will promise me," her voice dropped a tone or two, "you will promise me that you will not try and find out what those flames are, won't you? I could not sleep if you did." And they were gone.
Merriton stood awhile in silence, his brows puckered and his mouth stern. First Borkins, and then Brellier, and now her! All of them begging him almost upon their knees to forego a perfectly harmless little quest of discovery. There seemed to his mind something almost fishy about it all. What then were these "Frozen Flames"? What secret did they hide? And what malignant power dwelt behind the screen of their mystery?
AN EVIL GENIUS
Thus, despite the bad beginning at Merriton Towers the weeks that followed were filled with happiness for Merriton. His acquaintance with 'Toinette flourished and that charming young woman grew to mean more and more to the man who had led such a lonely life.
And so one day wove itself into another with the joy of sunlight over both their lives. He took to going regularly to Withersby Hall, and became an expected guest, dropping in at all hours to wile away an hour or two in 'Toinette's company, or else to have a quiet game of billiards with Brellier, or a cigar in company with both of them, in the garden, while the sun was still up. He never mentioned the flames to them again. But he never investigated them either. He had promised 'Toinette that, though he often watched them from his bedroom window, at night, watched them and wondered, and thought a good deal about Borkins and how he had lied to him about his uncle's disappearance upon that first night. Between Borkins and himself there grew up a spirit of distrust which he regretted yet did nothing to counteract. In fact it is to be feared that he did his best at times to irritate the staid old man who had been in the family so long. Borkins did amuse him, and he couldn't help leading him on. Borkins, noting this attitude, drew himself into himself and his face became mask-like in its impassivity.
But if Borkins became a stone image whenever Merriton was about, his effusiveness was over-powering at such times as Mr. Brellier paid a visit to the Towers. He followed both Brellier and his niece wherever they went like a shadow. Jokingly one day, Merriton had made the remark: "Borkins might be your factotum rather than mine, Mr. Brellier; indeed I've no doubt he would be, if the traditions of the house had not so long lain in his hands." He was rewarded for this remark by a sudden tightening of Brellier's lips, and then by an equally sudden smile. They were very good friends these days Brellier and Merriton, and got on very excellently together.
And then, as the days wore themselves away and turned into months, Merriton woke up to the fact that he could wait no longer before putting his luck to the test so far as 'Toinette was concerned. He had already confided his secret to Brellier, who laughed and patted him on the back and told him that he had known of it a long time and wished him luck. It wasn't long after this he was telling Brellier the good news that 'Toinette had accepted, and the two of them came to tell him of their happiness.
"So?" Mr. Brellier said quietly. "Well, I am very, very glad. You have taken your time, mes enfants, in settling this greatest of all questions, but perhaps you have been wise.... I am very happy for you, my 'Toinette, for I feel that your future is in the keeping of a good and true man. There are all too few in the world, believe me!...
"'Toinette, a friend awaits you in the drawing-room. Someone, I fear me, who will be none too pleased to hear this news, but that's as may be. Dacre Wynne is there, 'Toinette."
At the name a chill came over Merriton.
Dacre Wynne! And here! Impossible, and yet the name was too uncommon for it to be a different person from the man who always seemed somehow to turn up wherever he, Merriton, might chance to be. Sort of a fateful affinity. Good friends and all that, but somehow the things he always wanted, Dacre Wynne had invariably come by just beforehand. There was much more than friendly rivalry in their acquaintanceship. And once, as mere youngsters of seventeen and eighteen, there had been a girl, his girl, until Dacre came and took her with that masterful way of his. There was something brutally over-powering about Dacre, hard as granite, forceful, magnetic. To Nigel's young, clean, wholesome mind, little given to morbid imaginings as it was, it had almost seemed as if their two spirits were in some stifling stranglehold together, wrapt about and intertwined by a hand operating by means of some unknown medium. And now to find him here in his hour of happiness. Was this close, uncomfortable companionship of the spirit to be forced on him again? If Wynne were present he felt he would be powerless to avoid it.
"Do you know Dacre Wynne?" he asked, his voice betraying an emotion that was almost fear.
'Toinette Brellier glanced at her uncle, hesitated, and then murmured: "Yes, I do. I didn't know you did, Nigel. He never spoke of you. I, he, you see he wants me, too, Nigel, and I am almost afraid to tell him about us. But I have to see him. Shall I tell him?"
"Of course. Poor chap, I am sorry for him. Yes, I know him, 'Toinette. But I cannot say we are friends. You see, I, Oh, well, it doesn't matter."
But how much Dacre Wynne was to matter to him, and to 'Toinette, and to the public, and to far away Scotland Yard, and to the man of mystery, Hamilton Cleek, not they nor any one else could possibly tell.
They went into the long, cool drawing room together, and came upon Dacre Wynne, clad in riding things, and looking, just as Nigel remembered he always looked, very bronzed and big and handsome in a heavy way. His back was toward them and his eyes were upon a photo of 'Toinette that stood on a carved secrétaire. He wheeled at the sound of their footsteps and came forward, his face lighting with pleasure, his hand outstretched. Then he saw Merriton behind 'Toinette's tiny figure, and for a moment some of the pleasure went out of his eyes.
"Hello," he said. "However did you get to this part of the world? You always turn up like a bad penny.... What a time you've been 'Toinette!"
Merriton greeted him pleasantly, and 'Toinette's radiant eyes smiled up into his bronzed face.
"Have I?" she said, with a little embarrassed laugh. "Well, I have been out riding with Nigel."
"Oh, Nigel lives round here, does he?" said Wynne, with a sarcastic laugh. "Like it, old man?"
"Oh, I like it well enough," retorted Merriton. "At any rate I'll be obliged to get used to it. I've said good-bye to India for keeps, Wynne. I'm settled here for good."
Wynne swung upon his heel at the tone of Merriton's voice, and his eyes narrowed. He stood almost a head taller than Nigel who was by no means short and was big and broad and heavy-chested. Merriton always felt at a disadvantage.
"So? You are going to settle down to it altogether, then?" said Wynne, with an odd note in his deep, booming voice. 'Toinette sent a quick, rather scared look into her lover's face. He smiled back as though to reassure her.
"Yes," he said, a trifle defiantly. "You see, Wynne, I've come into a place near here. I'm hoping to get married soon. 'Toinette and I, you know. She's done me the honour to promise to be my wife. Congratulate me, won't you?"
It was like a blow full in the face to the other man. For a moment all the colour drained out of his bronzed cheeks and he went as white as death.
"I certainly congratulate you, with all my heart," he said, speaking in a strange, husky voice. "Believe me, you're a luckier chap, Merriton, than you know. Quite the luckiest chap in the world."
He took out his handkerchief suddenly and blew his nose, and then wiped his forehead, which, Merriton noted, was damp with perspiration. Then he felt in his pockets and produced a cigarette.
"I may smoke, 'Toinette? Thanks. I've had a long ride, and a hard one.... And so you two are going to get married, are you?"
'Toinette's face, too, was rather pale. She smiled nervously, and instinctively her hand crept out and touched Merriton's sleeve. She could feel him stiffen suddenly, and saw how proudly he threw back his head.
"Yes," said 'Toinette. "We're going to be married, Dacre. And I am, oh, so happy! I know you cannot help being pleased with that. And uncle, too. He seems delighted."
Wynne measured her with his eyes for a moment. Then he looked quickly away.
"Well, Merriton, you've got your own back for little Rosie Deverill, haven't you? Remember how heart-broken you were at sixteen, when she turned her rather wayward affections to me? Now the tables have turned. Well, I wish you luck. Think I'll be getting along. I've a good deal of work to do this evening, and I'll be shipping for Cairo, I hope, next week. That's what I came to see you about 'Toinette, but I'm afraid I am a little late."
"Cairo, Mr. Wynne?" Brellier had entered the room and his voice held a note of surprise. "We shall miss you "
"Oh, you'll get on all right without me, my friend," returned Wynne with a grim smile, and a look that included all three of them in its mock amusement. "I'm not quite so much wanted as I thought. Well, Nigel, I suppose you'll be giving a dinner, the proper 'stag' party, before you become a Benedict. Sorry I can't be here to join in the revels."
He put out his hand, Nigel took it, and wrung it with a heartiness and friendship that he had never before felt; but after all he had conquered! It was he Antoinette was going to marry. His heart was brimming over with pity for the man.
"Look here," he said. "Come and dine with me at the Towers before you go, Wynne, old man. We'll have a real bachelor party as you say. All the other chaps and you, just to give you a sort of send off. What about Tuesday? I won't have you say no."
For a moment a look of friendship came into Wynne's eyes. He gazed into Merriton's, and then returned the hand-grasp frankly. It was almost as though he understood this mute apology of Nigel's, and took it at its proper value.
"Thanks, old boy. Very decent of you, I'm sure. Yes, I'd like to have a peep at the other chaps before I sail. Just for old times' sake. I've nothing special doing Tuesday that I can't put off. And so I'll come. So long."
"Good-bye," said Merriton, rather relieved at Wynne's attitude and yet, in spite of himself, distrusting it.
"Good-bye, 'Toinette.... It's really good-bye this time. And I wish you all the happiness you deserve."
He looked into her eyes a moment, and then with a sudden sigh turned quickly away and went out of the room. Brellier strode after him and wrung his hand while the two that were left clung to each other in silence. It was as though an unseen, sinister presence had suddenly gone from the room. The tension was lifted, and they could breathe naturally again.
Standing together they heard the front door slam.
THE SPECTRE AT THE FEAST
Merriton, clad in his evening clothes and looking exceedingly handsome, stood by the smoking room door, with Tony West, short and thickset, wearing a suit that fitted badly and a collar which looked sizes too large for him (Merriton had long given up hope of making him visit a decent tailor) and waited for the sound of motor wheels which would announce the arrival of further guests.
It was the memorable Tuesday dinner, given in the first place for Dacre Wynne, as a sort of send off before he left for Cairo. In the second Merriton intended to break it gently to the other chaps that he was shortly to become a Benedict.
Lester Stark and Tony West, very loyal and proven friends of Nigel Merriton, had arrived the evening before. Dacre Wynne was coming down by the seven o'clock train, Dicky Fordyce, Reginald Lefroy both fellow officers of Merriton's regiment, and home on leave from India and mild old Dr. Bartholomew, whom everyone respected and few did not love, and who was in attendance at most of the bachelor spreads in London and out of it, as being a dry old body with a wit as fine as a rapier-thrust, and a fund of delicate, subtle humour, made up the little party.
The solemn front door bell of Merriton Towers clanged, and Borkins, very pompous and elegant, flung wide the door. Merriton saw Wynne's big, broad-shouldered figure swathed in the black evening cloak which he affected upon such occasions, and which became him mightily, and with an opera hat set at the correct angle upon his closely-clipped dark hair, step into the lighted hallway, and begin taking off his gloves.
Tony West's raspy voice chimed out a welcome, as Merriton went forward, his hand outstretched.
"Hello, old man!" said Tony. "How goes it? Lookin' a bit white about the gills, aren't you, eh?... Whew! Merriton, old chap, that's my ribs, if you don't mind. I've no penchant for your bayonet-like elbow to go prodding into 'em!"
Merriton raised an eyebrow, frowned heavily, and by every other method under the sun tried to make it plain to West that the topic was taboo. Wherefore West raised his eyebrows, began to make a hasty exclamation, thought better of it, and then clapping his hand over his mouth broke into whistling the latest jazz tune, as though he had completely extricated both feet from the unfortunate mire he had planted them in—but with very little success.
Wynne was a frowning Hercules as he entered the pleasant smoke-filled room. Merriton's arm lay upon his sleeve, and he endured because he had to that was all.
"Hello!" he said, to Lester Stark's rather half-hearted greeting Lester Stark never had liked Dacre Wynne and they both knew it. "You here as well? Merriton's giving me a send-off and no mistake. Gad! you chaps will be envying me this time next week, I'll swear! Out on the briny for a decently long trip; plenty of pretty women on which I'm bankin' of course" he gave Merriton a sudden, searching look, "and not a care in the world. And the white lights of Cairo starin' at me across the water. Some picture, isn't it?"
"You may keep it!" said Tony West with a shudder. "When you've smelled Cairo, Wynne, old boy, you'll come skulkin' home with your tail between your legs. A 'rose by any other name would smell as sweet,' but Cairo parts of it mind you well, Cairo's the stinkin'st rose I ever put my nose into, that's all!"
"There are some things which offend the nostrils more than odours!" threw back Wynne with a black look in Nigel's direction, and with a sort of slur in his voice that showed he had been drinking more than was good for him that night. "I think I can endure the smells of Cairo after other things. Eh, Nigel?" He forced a laugh which was mirthless and unpleasant, and Merriton, with a quick glance into his friends' faces, saw that they too had seen. Wynne was in one of his "devil" humours, and all the fun and joking and merriment in the world would never get him out of it. His pity for the man suddenly died a natural death. The very evident fact that Wynne had been drinking rather heavily merely added a further distaste to it all. He wished heartily that he had never ventured upon this act of unwanted friendliness and given a dinner in his honour. Wynne was going to be the spectre at the feast, and it looked like being a poor sort of show after all.
"Come, buck up, old chap!" broke out Tony West, the irrepressible. "Try to look a little less like a soured lemon, if you can! Or we'll begin to think that you've been and gone and done something you're sorry for, and are trying to work it off on us instead."
"Hello, here's Doctor Johnson," as the venerable Bartholomew entered the room. "How goes it to-night, sir? A fine night, what? Behold the king of the feast, his serene and mighty, oh extremely mighty! highness Prince Dacre Wynne, world explorer and soon to be lord-high-sniffer of Cairo's smells! Don't envy him the task, do you?"
He bowed with a flourish to the doctor who chuckled and his keen eyes, fringed with snow-white lashes, danced. He wore a rather long, extremely untidy beard, and his shirt-front as always was crumpled and worn. Anything more unlike a doctor it would be hard to imagine. But he was a clever one, nevertheless.
"Well, my talkative young parrot," he greeted West affectionately, "and how are you?... And who's party is this, anyhow? Yours or Merriton's? You seem to be putting yourself rather more to the fore than usual."
"Well, I'll soon be goin' aft," retorted West with a wide grin. "When old Nigel gets his innings. He's as chockful of news as an egg is of meat." West was one of the chosen few who had already heard of Nigel's engagement, and he was rather like a gossipy old woman but his friends forgave it in him.
Merriton gave him a shove, and he fell back upon Wynne, emitting a portentous groan.
"What the devil ?" began that gentleman, in a testy voice.
"Nigel was ever thus!" he murmured, with uplifted eyes.
"Shut up!" thundered Stark, clapping a hand over West's mouth, and he subsided as the doorbell rang again, and Borkins ushered in Fordyce and Lefroy, two slim-hipped, dapper young gentlemen with the stamp of the army all over them. The party thus complete, Borkins gravely withdrew, and some fifteen minutes later the great gong in the hallway clanged out its summons. They streamed into the dining room, Doctor Bartholomew upon Tony West's fat little arm; Fordyce and Lefroy, side by side, hands in pockets and closely cropped heads nodding vigorously; Merriton and Lester Stark sauntering one slightly behind the other, and exchanging pleasantries as they went; and just in front of them, Dacre Wynne, solitary, huge, sinister, and overbearing.
Wynne sat in the seat of honour on Merriton's right. The rest sorted themselves out as they wished, and made a good deal of noise and fun about it, too. Down the length of the long, exquisitely decorated table Merriton looked at his guests and thought it wasn't going to be so dismal after all.
Champagne ran like water and spirits ran high. They joyfully toasted Wynne, and later on the news that Merriton imparted to them. In vain Dacre Wynne's low spirits were apparent. He must get over his grouch, that was all. Then once again the spirit of evil descended upon the gathering and it was Stark who precipitated its flight. "By the way, Nigel," he asked suddenly, "isn't there some ghost story or other pertaining to your district? Give us a recital of it, old boy. Walnuts and wine and ghost stories, you know, are just the right sort of thing after a dinner like this. Tony, switch off the lights. This old house of yours is the very place for ghosts. Now let us have it."
"Hold on," Nigel remonstrated. "Give me a chance to digest my dinner, and dash it all, the thing's so deuced uncanny that it doesn't bear too much laughing at either!"
"Come along!" Six voices echoed the cry. "We're waiting, Nigel."
So Merriton had forthwith to oblige them. He, too, had had enough to drink though drinking too heavily was not one of his vices and his flushed face showed the excitement that burned within him.
"Come over here by the window and see the thing for yourselves, and then you shall hear the story," he began enigmatically.
Nigel pushed back the heavy curtain and there, in the darkness without it was getting on toward ten o'clock gleamed and danced and flickered the little flames that had so often puzzled him, and filled his soul with a strange sort of supernatural fear. Against the blackness beyond they hung like a chain of diamonds irregularly strung, flickering incessantly.
Every man there, save one, and that one stood apart from the others like some giant bull who deigns not to run with the herd gave an involuntary exclamation.
"What a deuced pretty sight!" remarked Fordyce, in his pleasant drawl. "What is it? Some sort of fair or other? Didn't know you had such things in these parts."
"We don't." It was Merriton who spoke, rather curtly, for the remark sounded inane to his ears.
"It is no fair you ass, it's God knows what! That's the point of the whole affair. What are those flames, and where do they come from? That part of the Fens is uninhabited, a boggy, marshy, ghostly spot which no one in the whole countryside will cross at night. The story goes that those who do well they never come back."
"Oh, go easy, Nigel!" struck in Tony West with a whistle of pretended astonishment. "Champagne no doubt, but..."
"It's the truth according to the villagers, anyhow!" returned Merriton, soberly. "That is how the story goes, my lad, and you chaps asked me for it. Those Frozen Flames it's the villagers' name, not mine they say are supernatural phenomena, and any one, as I said before, crossing the place near them at night disappears clean off the face of the earth. Then a new flame appears, the soul of the johnny who has 'gone out'."
"Any proof?" inquired Doctor Bartholomew suddenly, stroking his beard, and arching his bushy eyebrows, as if trying to sympathize with his host's obvious half belief in the story.
Nigel wheeled and faced him in the dim light. The pupils of his eyes were a trifle dilated.
"Yes, so I understand. Short time back a chap went out fellow called Myers Will Myers. He was a bit drunk, I think, and thought he'd have a shot at makin' the village busybodies sit up and give 'em something to talk about. Anyhow, he went."
"And he came back?" Unconsciously a little note of anxiety had crept into Tony West's voice.
"No, on the contrary, he did not come back. They searched for his body all over the marshes next day, but it had disappeared absolutely, and the chap who told me said he saw another light come out the next night, and join the rest of 'em.... There, there's your story, Lester, make what you like of it. I've done my bit and told it anyway."
For a moment there was silence. Then Stark shook himself.
"Gad, what an uncanny story! Turn up the lights someone, and dispel this gloom that seems to have settled on everyone! What do you make of it?"
Suddenly Wynne's great, bulky figure swung free from the shadows. There were red glints in his eyes and a sneer curled his heavy lips. He sucked his cigar and threw his head back.
"What I make of it is a whole lot of old women's damn silly nonsense!" he announced in a loud voice. "And how a sensible, decent thinkin' man can give credence to the thing for one second beats me completely! Nigel's head was always full of imaginations (of a sort) but how you other chaps can listen to the thing Well, all I can say is you're the rottenest lot of idiots I've ever come across!"
Merriton shut his lips tightly for a moment, and tried hard to remember that this man was a guest in his house. It was so obvious that Wynne was trying for a row, Doctor Bartholomew turned round and lifted a protesting hand.
"Don't you think your language is a trifle er overstrong, Wynne?" he said, in that quiet voice of his which made all men listen and wonder why they did it.
Wynne tossed his shoulders. His thick neck was rather red.
"No, I'm damned if I do! You're men here or supposed to be not a pack of weak-kneed women!... Afraid to go out and see what those lights are, are you? Well, I'm not. Look here. I'll have a bet with you boys. Fifty pounds that I get back safely, and dispel the morbid fancies from your kindergarten brains by tellin' you that the things are glow-worms, or some fool out for a practical joke on the neighbourhood which has fallen for it like this sort of one-horse hole-in-the-corner place would! Fifty pounds? What say you?"
He glowered round upon each of them in turn, his sneering lips showing the pointed dogs' teeth behind them, his whole arrogant personality brutally awake. "Who'll take it on? You Merriton? Fifty pounds, man, that I don't get back safely and report to you chaps at twelve o'clock to-night."
Merriton's flushed face went a shade or two redder, and he took an involuntary step forward. It was only the doctor's fingers upon his coat-sleeve that restrained him. Then, too, he felt some anxiety that this drunken fool should attempt to do the very thing which another drunken fool had attempted three months back. He couldn't bet on another man's chance of life, like he would on a race-horse!
"You'll be a fool if you go, Wynne," he said, as quietly as his excitement would permit. "As my guest I ask you not to. The thing may be all rubbish possibly is but I'd rather you took no chances. Who it is that hides out there and kills his victims or smuggles them away I don't know, but I'd rather you didn't, old chap. And I'm not betting on a fellow's life. Have another drink man, and forget all about it."
Wynne took this creditable effort at reconciliation with a harsh guffaw. He crossed to Nigel and put his big, heavy hands upon the slim shoulders, bending his flushed face down so that the eyes of both were almost upon a level.
"You little, white-livered sneak," he said in a deep rumbling voice that was like thunder in the still room. "Pull yourself together and try to be a man. Take on the bet or not, whichever you like. You're savin' up for the housekeepin' I suppose. Well, take it or leave it fifty pounds that I get back safe in this house to-night. Are you on?"
Merriton's teeth bit into his lips until the blood came in the effort at repression. He shook Wynne's hands off his shoulders and laughed straight into the other man's sneering face.
"Well then go and be damned to you!" he said fiercely. "And blame your drunken wits if you come to grief. I've done my best to dissuade you. If you were less drunk I'd square the thing up and fight you. But I'm on, all right. Fifty pounds that you don't get back here though I'm decent enough to hope I'll have to pay it. That satisfy you?"
"All right." Wynne straightened himself, took an unsteady step forward toward the door, and it was then that they all realized how exceedingly drunk the man was. He had come to the dinner in a state of partial intoxication, which merely made him bad-tempered, but now the spirits that he had partaken of so plentifully was burning itself into his very brain.
Doctor Bartholomew took a step toward him.
"Dash it all!" he said under his breath and addressing no one in particular, "he can't go like that. Can't some of us stop him?"
"Try," put in Lester Stark sententiously, having had previous experiences of Wynne's mood, so Doctor Bartholomew did try, and got cursed for his pains. Wynne was struggling into his great, picturesque cloak, a sinister figure of unsteady gait and blood-shot eye. As he went to the hall and swung open the front door, Merriton made one last effort to stop him.
"Don't be a fool, Wynne," he said anxiously. "The game's not worth the candle. Stay where you are and I'll put you up for the night, but in Heaven's name don't venture out across the Fens now."
Wynne turned and showed him a reddened, congested face from which the eyes gleamed evilly. Merriton never forgot that picture of him, or the sudden tightening of the heart-strings that he experienced, the sudden sensation of foreboding that swept over him.
"Oh go to hell!" Wynne said thickly. And plunged out into the darkness.
A SHOT IN THE DARK
The church clock, some distance over Herne's Hill which lies at the back of Merriton Towers, broke the half silence that had fallen upon the little group of men in the warm smoking room with twelve sonorous, deep-throated notes. At sound of them Merriton got to his feet and stretched his hands above his head. A damper had fallen over the spirits of his guests after Wynne had gone out into the night on his foolish errand, and the fury against him that had stirred Nigel's soul was gradually wearing off.
"Well, Wynne said twelve, didn't he?" he remarked, with a sort of half-laugh as he surveyed the grave faces of the men who were seated in a semi-circle about him, "and twelve it is. We'll wait another half hour, and then if he doesn't come we'll make a move for bed. He'll be playing some beastly trick upon us, you may be sure of that. What a horrible temperament the man has! He was supposed to be putting up with the Brelliers tonight old man Brellier was decent enough to ask him and possibly he'll simply turn in there and laugh to himself at the picture of us chaps sitting here in the mornin' and waitin' for his return!"
Doctor Bartholomew shook his white head with a good deal of obstinacy.
"I think you're wrong there Nigel. Wynne is a man of his word, drunk or sober. He'll come back, no doubt. Unless something has happened to him."
"And this from our sceptical disbeliever, boys!" struck in Tony West, raising his hands in mock horror. "Nigel, m'lad, you've made an early conversion. The good doctor has a sneaking belief in the story. How now, son? What's your plan of action?"
"Half an hour's wait more, and then to bed," said Merriton, tossing back his head and setting his jaw. "I offered Wynne a bed in the first place, but he saw fit to refuse me. If he hasn't made use of this opportunity to turn in at the Brelliers' place, I'll eat my hat. What about a round of cards, boys, till the time is up?"
So the cards were produced, and the game began. But it was a half-hearted attempt at best, for everyone's ear was strained for the front-door bell, and everyone had an eye half-cocked toward the window. Before the half hour was up the game had fizzled out. And still Dacre Wynne did not put in an appearance.
Borkins, having been summoned, brought in some whisky and Merriton remarked casually:
"Mr. Wynne has ventured out to try and discover the meaning of the Frozen Flames, Borkins. He'll be back some time this evening or rather morning, I should say, for it's after midnight and the other gentlemen and myself are going to make a move for bed. Keep your ears peeled in case you hear him. I sleep like the very old devil himself, when once I do get off."
Borkins, on hearing this, turned suddenly gray, and the perspiration broke out on his forehead.
"Gone, sir? Mr. Wynne gone out there?" he said in a stifled voice. "Oh my Gawd, sir. It's it's suicide, that's what it is! And Mr. Wynne's gone!... 'E'll never come back, I swear."
Merriton laughed easily.
"Well, keep your swearing to yourself, Borkins," he returned, "and see that the gentlemen's rooms are ready for 'em. Doctor Bartholomew has the one next to mine, and Mr. West's is on the other side. I gave Mrs. Dredge full instructions this morning.... Good-night, Borkins, and pleasant dreams."
Borkins left. But his face was a dull drab shade and he was trembling like a man who has received a terrible shock.
"There's a case of genuine scare for you," remarked Doctor Bartholomew quietly, drawing on his pipe. "That man's nerves are like unstrung wires. Hardly ever seen a chap so frightened in all the course of my medical career. He's either had experience of the thing, or he knows something about it. Whichever way it is, he's the most terrified object I've ever laid eyes on!"
Merriton broke into a laugh. But there was not much merriment in it, rather a note of uneasiness which made Tony West glance up at him sharply.
"Best place for you, old chap, is your bed," he said, getting to his feet and laying an arm across Nigel's shoulders. "Livin' down here does seem to play the old Harry with one's nerves. I'm as jumpy as a kitten myself. Take it from me, Wynne will return, Nigel, and when he does he'll see to it that we all hear him. He'll probably break every pane of glass in the place with a stone, and play a devil's dance upon the knocker. That's his usual way of expressin' his pleasure, I believe. Here, here's health to you, old boy, and happiness, and the best of luck."
That little ceremony being over, they turned in, Doctor Bartholomew, his arm linked in Nigel's going with him to his bedroom, and, in the half-dusk of the spluttering candles, they stood together at the uncurtained window and looked out in silence upon the flames, the Frozen Flames that Wynne had gone out to investigate. For quite ten minutes they stood still. Then the doctor stirred himself and broke into a little laugh.
"Well, well," he said comfortably, "whatever our friend Wynne is going to do, I don't really think we need put any credence in the story that he won't return, Nigel. So you can go to bed in comfort on that, can't you?"
Merriton nodded. Then he yawned and shut his eyes.
"What's that? Credence in the story? Of course not, Doctor. I'm not such a fool as I may look. Wynne's playing a game on us, and at this moment he is probably seated in Brellier's study having a laugh at the rest of us, waitin' up for him anxiously, like a lot of scared old women. Heigho! I'm tired.... You're interested in firearms, Doctor. Here's my little pet, my sleepin' companion, you understand, that has been with me through many a hot campaign." He leaned over and took a little revolver out of the drawer of the little cabinet that stood by the bedside. The doctor, who had a remarkably fine collection of firearms, handled it with practised hands, remarked upon its good points, cocked the tiny thing, and then lifting his head looked Nigel straight in the eyes.
"I see you keep it loaded, my boy," he said quietly.
"Yes. Habit, I suppose. One needed a loaded revolver in the jungle where every black man's hand was against you. Nice little toy, isn't it?"
"Yes. Looks very business like, too."
"It is. Twice now it has saved my life. I owe it a good turn.... Well," laying the thing down upon the top of the cabinet and turning to the doctor with a smile. "I suppose you'll be turning in now. Pleasant dreams, old chap, and plenty of 'em. If you hear anything of Wynne "
"I'll let you know," broke in the doctor, returning the smile affectionately. "Good-night."
He turned and went out through the door to his own room, the next one along the hall.
Nigel, after hesitating a moment, strode over to the window. It was still as black as a pocket outside, for dawn was not due for some hours yet, and against the darkness the flames still danced their nightly revel. He shook his fist at them and then broke into a harsh laugh as the thought of Dacre Wynne came to him again. Dash the fellow! He was always, in some way or another, intruding upon his privacy, whether it was mental or otherwise. Then, as he looked, it seemed as though a fresh flame suddenly flashed out in the velvet darkness to the left of the others. To his excited fancy it looked bigger, brighter, newer! But that was impossible! The Fens were uninhabited.
He watched the light for a moment or two, and then suddenly, obsessed with a strange fear, strode across the room and picked up the tiny revolver.
"Damn it! I'm going silly!" he exclaimed angrily, and throwing the window open took aim, his brain on fire with the champagne and the excitement of the evening. "Now let's see if you'll go, you infernal little devil!"
His finger touched the trigger, the thing spoke softly that was one of its chief attractions for Nigel and spat forth a little jet of flame. And as it did so, his brain cleared like magic. He laughed and shook himself as though out of a trance into which he had fallen. The light was still there. What a fool he was, potting at glow-worms like a madman! He shut the window with a bang and started to undress, and then went over to the door as he heard the doctor's voice outside.
"Thought I heard a shot, Nigel, what ?"
"You did. I'm a silly ass and have been potting at those beastly flames," returned Merriton, shamefacedly. "For Heaven's sake, don't tell the other fellows. They'll think I've gone loony. And for a moment I believe I had. But there's no harm done."
"Potting at those flames!" The doctor's voice was almost concerned. Then he shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, well, there's nothing in it! I must say I've taken a chance shot now and again at a bird myself from my bedroom before now. Still, get to bed, Nigel, like a good fellow, and have some sleep. Here, give me the pistol. You'll be potting at me before I know where I am. I'll take it into my room, thank you!"
"Right you are!" Merriton's laugh rang more normally and the doctor nodded with pleasure. "Good-night, Doctor."
Then the door closed again, and the house dropped once more into stillness. In ten minutes Merriton tumbled into bed. He slept like a log.... He hadn't seen the doctor drop that sleeping draught into that last whisky while Tony West kept him talking. That was why he slept.
Later on, however, his shame at his own foolishness in firing his pistol at mere flames of the night was the cause of grave difficulty. For when he related the story of the whole affair to Cleek's master mind he left that out! And very nearly was it his own undoing, for strange was to be the outcome of that shot in the night.
THE WATCHER IN THE SHADOW
But if Merriton slept, the others of the little party did not. After his door had closed upon him they appeared from their rooms, and met by arrangement once more in the study. Doctor Bartholomew a little late at having waited and listened for the outward result of his drug in Nigel's comforting snore joined the group with an anxious face. There was no laughter now in the pleasant, heated smoking room. Every face there wore a look that bordered closely upon fear.
"Well, Doctor," said Tony West, as he entered the room, "what's the plan? I don't like Wynne's absence, I swear I don't. It looks fishy, somehow. And he was in no mood to play boyish pranks on us by turnin' in at the Brelliers' place. There's somethin' else afoot. What's your idea, now?"
The doctor considered a moment.
"Better be getting out and form a search party," he said quietly. "If nothing turns up well, Nigel needn't know we've been out. But there's more in this than meets the eye, boys. Frankly, I don't like it. Wynne's a brute, but he never liked practical joking. It's my private opinion that he would have returned by now if something hadn't happened to him. We'll wait till dawn, and then we'll go. Nigel is good for some hours yet. Wynne always had a bad effect on him. Ever noticed it, West? Or you, Stark?"
The two men nodded.
"Yes," said Tony, "I have. Many times. Nigel's never the same fellow when that man's about. He's...he's got some sort of devilish influence over him, I believe. And how he hates Nigel! See his eyes to-night? He could have killed him, I believe, specially as Nigel's taken his girl."
"Yes." The doctor's voice was rather grave. "Wynne's a queer chap and a revengeful one. And he was as drunk as a beast to-night.... Well, boys we'll sit down and wait awhile."
Pipes were got out and cigarettes lighted. For an hour in the hot smoking-room the men sat, talking in undertones and smoking, or dropping off into long silences. Finally the doctor drew out his watch. He sighed as he looked at it.
"Three o'clock, and no sign of Wynne yet. We'll be getting our things on, boys."
Instantly every man rose to his feet. The tension slackened with movement. In comparative silence they stole out into the hall, threw on their coats and hats, and then Tony West nervously slid the bolts of the big front door. It creaked once or twice, but no sound from the still house answered it. West swung it open, and on the whitened step they quietly put on their shoes.
The doctor switched on an electric torch and threw a blob of light upon the gravelled pathway for them to see the descent. Then one by one they went quietly down the steps, and West shut the door behind them.
"Excellent! Excellent!" exclaimed Doctor Bartholomew, as the gate was reached with no untoward happenings. "Not a soul knows we're gone, boys. That's pretty certain. Now, then, out of the gate and turn to the right up that lane. It'll take us to the very edge of the Fens, I believe, and then our search will commence."
He spoke with assurance, and they followed him instinctively. Unconsciously they had made him captain of the expedition. But no one had heard them, he had said? If he had looked back once when the big gate shut, he might have changed his mind upon that score. With white face pressed close against the glass of the smoking-room window, which looked directly out upon the front path, stood Borkins, watching them as though he were watching a line of ghosts on their nightly prowl.
"Good Gawd!" he ejaculated, as he discerned their dark figures and the light of the doctor's torch. "Every one of 'em gone every one!" And then, trembling, he went back to bed.
But the doctor did not look back, and so the little party proceeded upon its way in comparative silence until the edge of the Fens was reached. Here, with one accord, they stopped for further instructions. Three torches made the spot upon which they stood like daylight. The doctor bent his eyes downward.
"Now, boys," he said briskly. "Keep your eyes sharp for footprints. Wynne must have struck off here into the Fens, it's the most direct course. He wouldn't have been such a duffer as to walk too far out of his way if he was bent upon going there at all.... Hello! Here's the squelchy mark of a man's boot, and here's another!"
They followed the track onward, with perfect ease, for the marshy ground was sodden and took every footprint deeply. That some man had crossed this way, and recently, too, was perfectly plain. The footprints wavered a little that was all, showing that the man who made them was uncertain upon his feet. And Wynne had left the house by no means sober!
"It looks as though he had come here after all!" broke out Tony West, excitedly. "Why the track's as plain as the nose on your face."
They zig-zagged their tedious way out across the marshy grassland, their thin shoes squelching in the bogs, their trousers unmercifully spattered with the thick, treacley mud. They spoke little, their eyes bent upon the ground, their foreheads wrinkled. On and on and on they went, while the sky above them lightened and grew murky with the soft cloudiness of breaking dawn. The flames in the distance began to pale, and the vast stretch of Fen district before them was shrouded in a light fog, misty, unutterably ghostlike and with the chill lonesomeness of death.
"Whew! Eeriest task I've ever come across!" ejaculated Stark with a grimace as he looked up for a moment into the dull mist ahead. "If we're not all down with pneumonia to-morrow, it won't be our own faults!... Some distance, isn't it, Doctor?"
"It is," returned the doctor grimly. "What a fool the man was to attempt it!... Here's a footprint, and another."
Yes, and many another after that. They staggered on, wet, cold, uncomfortable, anxious. The doctor was a little ahead of the rest of them, Tony West came second, the others straggled a pace or two behind. Suddenly the doctor stopped and gave a hasty exclamation:
"Good Heavens above!"
They ran up to him clustering around him in their eagerness, and their torches lent their rays to make the thing he gazed at more distinguishable, while another mile away at least, the flames twinkled dimly, and slowly went out one by one as though the finger of dawn had snuffed them like candle-ends.
"What the devil is it?" demanded Tony West, getting to his knees and peering at the spot with narrowed eyes.
"Charred grass. And the end of the footprints!" It was the doctor who spoke in a queer voice sharp with excitement. "There has been a fire here or something. And Wynne went no farther, apparently. The ground about it is as marshy as ever, and my own footprint is perfectly clear.... What the dickens do you make of it, eh?"
But there was no answer forthcoming. Every man stood still staring down at this strange thing with wide eyes. For what the doctor said was absolute truth. The footsteps certainly did end here, and in a patch of charred grass as big round as a small table. What did it mean? What could it mean, but one thing? Somehow, somewhere, Wynne had vanished. It was incredible, unbelievable, and yet, there was the evidence of their own eyes. From that spot onward the ground was wholly free of the footprints of any man, woman, or child. No mark disturbed the sodden mud of it. And yet right here, where the grasses seemed to grow tallest, this patch was burnt off and withered as though with sudden heat.
Tony West straightened himself.
"If I didn't think the whole business was a pack of lies spun into a bigger one by a lot of village gossips, I'd begin to imagine there was something in the story after all!" he said, getting to his feet and looking at the white faces about him. "It's devilish uncanny, Doctor!"
"It is that." The doctor drew a long breath and stroked his beard agitatedly. "It's so devilish uncanny that one hardly knows what to believe. If this thing had happened in the East one might have looked at it with a more fatalistic eye. But here in England, no man in his senses could believe such a fool's tale as that which Nigel told us to-night. And yet Wynne has gone, vanished! Never a trace of him, though we'll search still farther for a while, to make sure!"
They separated at once, radiating out from that sinister spot and searched and searched and searched. Not a footprint was to be found beyond the spot, not a trace of any living thing. There was nothing for it but to go back to Merriton Towers and tell their tale to Nigel.
"Old Wynne has gone, and no mistake," said Tony West, as the men began slowly to retrace their steps across the marshlands, their faces in the pale light of the early morning looking white and drawn with the excitement and strain of the night. "What to make of it all, I don't know. Apparently old Wynne went out to see the Frozen Flames and the Frozen Flames have swallowed him up, or burnt him up, one or the other."
"And yet I can't hold any credence in the thing, no matter how hard I try!" said the doctor, shaking his head gravely, as they trudged on through the mud and mire. "And if Wynne isn't found well, there'll be the deuce to pay with the authorities. We'll have to report to the police first thing in the morning."
"Yes, the village constable will take the matter up, and knowing the story, will put entire faith in it, and that's all the help we'll get from him!" supplemented West with a harsh laugh. "I know the sort.... Here's the Towers at last, and if I don't make a mistake, there's the face of old Borkins pressed against the window!"
He ran ahead of the others and took the great stone steps two at a time. But Borkins had opened the door before he reached it. His eyes stared, his mouth sagged open.
"Mr. Wynne, sir? You found 'im?" he asked hoarsely.
"No. No trace whatever, Borkins. Where's your master?"
"Sir Nigel, sir? 'E's asleep, and snorin' like a grampus. This'll be a shock to 'im sir, for sure. Mr. Wynne gone? 'T ain't possible!"
But Tony had pushed by him and thrown open the smoking-room door. The warm, heated atmosphere came to them comfortingly. He crossed to the table, picked up a decanter and slopped out a peg of whisky. This he drank off neat. After that he felt better. The other men straggled in after him. He faced them with set lips.
"Now," said he, "to tell Nigel."